Review: Deep Change

June 19th, 2013

“What is your favorite book?”

When I come across this question—usually as a security check while I’m signing up for some online account—I often end up perplexed and paralyzed, the way I imagine a groundskeeper might feel if asked to point out his favorite blade of grass. I have read almost constantly for as long as I can remember, and in the process fallen in love with literally hundreds of books.

But if I can’t narrow down such a vast field of reading when put on the spot, perhaps I can do a little better with a bit of summer reflection. I’ve been asking myself lately what books are on my list of favorites for say, the past five years.

And I can’t believe where I want to start. With Deep Change by Robert E. Quinn.

My incredulity does not come from anything in the book itself. Since its publication more than fifteen years ago, Deep Change has become one of the sacred texts of contemporary leadership theory. It presents strong content along with good writing, a pleasant surprise for someone who has read much in the leadership genre.

Rather, my disbelief springs from my own sense of self. I do not fashion myself as the super-managerial, goal-driven type that most so-called leadership books want me to be. In fact, I harbor deep misgivings that such entrepreneurial methods are compatible with Christian community in the first place.

Why, then, would someone who so adamantly rejects many of the dominant leadership principles at work in the secular and ecclesial worlds point to Deep Change as a book that has profoundly influenced my thinking?

Because of what deep change is. Because of what church leadership is. And because of both the overlap and disconnect between the two.

When I first read Deep Change several years ago, I remember being struck by how spiritual the book was. It did the requisite rah-rah about vision casting and strong sense of purpose, of course. But from there it moved on to familiar New Testament concepts—self-sacrifice, courage, care for those without power. I starred and highlighted and scribbled notes in the margins, convinced I was reading an unintentional guide to the transformation of my struggling denomination.

Perhaps it was, or at least could have been. But the more I thought about its possibilities, the more I realized that the United Methodist Church had adopted the language of deep change without the understanding of its concepts. In fact, it was worse than that.

What I have observed in the past several years is a hierarchy that seems to be unaware that their notion of deep change is to create another (albeit smaller) hierarchy. I have heard people in positions of leadership use martyr-like language to elevate their purpose and dismiss valid criticisms of their methods. Our hierarchy may have wanted deep change results, but they did not want the process to get beyond their control.

In other words, “deep change” as it was practiced has been less about truly changing and saving the organization than it has been about who has power within it.

That is the disconnect, and it is disheartening to say the least.

But here is the overlap: the principles of deep change are applicable in more than just high-level counsels and cabinet meetings. They work just as well in sanctuaries and small groups and church council meetings on a local level. A person assumes leadership—whether validated by title or not—based on two things: a conviction that something must be done, and a willingness to subvert self-interest in order to see it happen.

These are the daily tasks of every rank-and-file church leader. We are called to lay down our lives for the good of our faith communities and the contexts in which they live. And, for most of us pastors and chaplains and campus ministers, we also have the freedom to act in whatever courageous yet humble ways are necessary for our congregations to be transformed into the Body of Christ.

We not only have the freedom and authority. Grass roots leaders have a responsibility that our ecclesial administration cannot meet.

Near the end of Deep Change, Quinn tells a story of Ghandi’s trek across India early in his career. When he returned to his political convention, he told his colleagues that if they were not connected with the real and tangible needs of the people, they would become just like the English oppressors that had starved their country. Knowing what the people’s real needs were—bread and salt—made all the difference in governing.

No amount of research data or demographic parsing can tell us what real people in real places truly need not just to live, but to be transformed. Only those of us at the local level can know these things. Only we can truly love the people in front of us. We are their nearest model for transformational living, the incarnation of deep change.

I continue to go back to my notes from Deep Change from time to time. Although it often makes me despair for the upper-level machinations of the UMC, it also reminds me that the importance of my task as a Christian leader is not based on power or re-organization. It is based on a willingness to live like Jesus and to encourage others to do the same, and on the faith that by transforming one congregation or even one life, we see life on earth as it might be in heaven.

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